The Kunsthallensommer continues to occupy me! This week it’s Paris! Paris! I spontaneously thought that my research interest in the coffee house would fit in perfectly with this motto. Because already in my master’s thesis I was more intensively occupied with the Parisian cafés. (That was so long ago. But I am very happy that this topic always returns to my consciousness.)
The Impressionists were the first artists to take up the café and establish it as an independent pictorial motif. With their art, they capture the atmosphere of the moment there. The coffee house is a very special experience space in the modern metropolis. And in 19th-century Paris, exciting nodal points in art history can be identified here. Cafés played an important role in the emergence of Impressionism. Without the numerous discussions and heated conversations about art that took place in the respective regular cafés, the artists would certainly not have proceeded so decisively in the sense of a new art. Let’s go to the coffee house. Off to Paris!
The coffee house motif
The tradition of pub scenes experienced a renaissance in the late 19th century, but soon fell behind more modern themes. In the context of illustrated travel reports from the 18th century, coffee house depictions appeared for the first time as descriptions of famous locations. In Realist painting, the motif of the coffee house appeared as a study of the milieu. Examples of this are Courbet’s “Brasserie Andler” or Honoré Daumier’s caricatures from Parisian life.
These representations, however, are not primarily interested in the motif of the coffee house, but rather choose it here arbitrarily as an arbitrary location. A worthiness of the coffee house developed in the late 60s of the 19th century. This is connected not only with a change in artistic opinion, but above all with a changed social situation in which the coffee houses that had existed in Paris since the late 17th century had developed into a cultural and social centre. The coffee house was one aspect of the form of metropolis in which technical achievements influenced social life. The consequences of the industrial revolution were far-reaching.
In the second half of the 19th century, numerous coffee house scenes were created, especially in French painting. Of course, it also reflected the way they used the coffee house. In a drawing, Eduard Manet captures the specific atmosphere of an artist’s café. Thus he depicts the interior of the “Café Guerbois”, in which he had been visiting since 1866 and gathered a circle of like-minded people around him. The coffee house on Avenue de Clichy No. 9 was her favourite pub, which in addition to Manet also included Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley and the writer Zola. Monet, who otherwise did not particularly appreciate social life in Paris, occasionally joined the group.
“They began a lively discussion about their drinks. (…) they went into great detail about the jury of the salon, which was committed to the past, and how one could manage to be accepted by it (…). One suggested blowing up the Beaux-Arts building during a general assembly of the Academy. Another suggested that the Louvre should be burned down. (…) There was much laughter.” In her book on Impressionism, Martina Padberg quotes a fictitious scene from Irving Stone’s novel “Die Tiefen des Ruhms” (“The Depths of Glory”), which beautifully describes how the group of artists could have behaved in the café. Without this free space, which they needed for their discussions, the development of a new art would not have been imaginable. For the first exhibition, they then tried to use the rooms of a photographer. But perhaps it could have been a café!
The coffee house is also one of the most famous urban subjects at Degas. In his examination of the thematic complex of modern society, he was particularly concerned with the form of the “café-concerts”. This was in keeping with his pronounced interest in stage events. An extraordinary example is this Japanese fan, which he painted in 1880 with a “singer in a Parisian garden café”. It comes from the collection of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.
The idea of painting fans came to Degas as a result of the widespread enthusiasm for Japan at the time, which slopped over into so-called Japonism. Such subjects were the latest fashion in Parisian society at the time. And when they were painted, they became coveted collectibles.
The café-concerts attracted people who enjoyed rough jokes and eccentric dance performances. They mostly took place in garden pubs. Degas probably represents the dancer Emilie Bécat here. She was known for her “style epileptique”, which she used to perform in the Café des Ambassadeurs. How Degas manages here to capture the exclusive gaze of the beholder is masterful. On the right we see the Bécat swinging the tip of her dress – framed by the typical garden lanterns of the café. To the left, the view loses itself in the garden green, which Degas reproduces abstractly in a fantastic wet-in-wet technique. This suggests the influence of Japanese painting, which the artist had studied intensively.
A famous picture by Degas from the Musée d’Orsay shows absinthe drinkers in the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes . He painted it in 1875/76 after sketches he made in the restaurant. The protagonists here are the actress Ellen Andrée and the painter and printer Marcellin Desboutin. A social study par excellence, which was of course considered shocking at the time. Absinthe, the devil’s stuff that is supposed to make you blind and mad, and the empty gaze of the drunkard. Such unembellished motifs were new to art.
Zola was also inspired by this picture to write a small section about absinthe in his “Totschläger”. The figure of the daydreaming girl with the self-forgotten smile could be reminiscent of the novel heroine Gervaise (Nana’s mother). The coffee house is the scene of chance encounters in the big city. Degas creates the optical stimuli and places the painterly qualities of the subject in the foreground.
Paris’ – the metropolis of the century – constantly provided new inspirations that the Impressionists could not escape. The Parisian coffee house scenes occupy a large space in her painting. If the compositions of the other “amusement places” are added, we get an adequate appearance of the bourgeois society of the “fin de siècle”. For me, this is inseparably linked to the image of Paris of those years.